A second chamber

Stabroek News
July 24, 1999

The Constitutional Reform Commission has recommended that Parliament "should consider the option of establishing an upper house consisting of representatives of each Region and Civil society". This second chamber of Parliament should have its powers carefully defined "so that it would not be able to frustrate the will of the elected lower house". In particular, it should not be given the power to initiate money bills aimed at altering the constitution. Fourteen Commissioners were in favour of the recommendation, two were against and two abstained so there was a solid majority in favour.

In their discussions on the issue the commissioners had noted that an upper house would provide the opportunity for the consideration of national issues away from the hothouse of an adversarial political lower chamber. It could serve another useful purpose, they said, by providing a vetting mechanism for appointments to constitutional offices "in a more purely deliberative environment".

Upper Houses have arisen in other countries in various historical circumstances. In the United Kingdom the House of Lords was originally composed of members of the old landed aristocracy. Over the years, its membership expanded considerably with the creation of large numbers of peers, mainly very successful businessmen but including elderly statesmen, doctors, scientists, civil servants and former diplomats. It has been referred to by critics as a fortress of wealth and privilege and the current Labour government has plans to revamp or even abolish it. However, its supporters feel it still performs a useful public service by virtue of the quality of some of its debates and the time it can devote to topics that a busy lower house ignores. The House of Lords has limited powers and can essentially only delay legislation.

In the United States the bicameral congress has its origins in what was called the Great Compromise. When the constitution was being drafted in l787 the fiercest struggles between the states was over representation in the legislature. The small states wanted all states to have equal representation, the larger ones wanted representation based on population. The compromise was that the House would be based on population and have the sole right to originate money bills but the small states would have equal representation in the Senate. Bills must be passed by both houses to become law so the Senate is a powerful second chamber.

Is a second chamber desirable? It is sometimes argued that a second chamber is useful in a large country to represent the diversity of interests throughout the country that may not be adequately represented in the lower house. However, there are small countries like Switzerland that have bicameral parliaments. But Switzerland is a federal system and federalism is also often advanced as a good reason for bicameralism. According to Arend Lijphart, the only country that is small and unitary and has a bicameral parliament is Ireland.

There are several varieties of bicameralism. In general, Lijphart notes, the second chamber is smaller than the first, the legislative terms are longer (e.g. for life in the House of Lords) and elections are staggered (e.g. in the U.S. Senate one third of the Senators are elected every two years - a Senator's term is six years). The smaller second chamber can conduct its business in a more informal manner. But the two key features are the powers of the second chamber and the method of selection of its members. Some second chambers are weak and can only delay legislation, others have almost equal powers to the first chambers as in Switzerland and America. Some second chambers are directly elected, some are indirectly elected (e.g. at legislatures at levels below that of the national governments) and others are appointed. The directly elected ones are clearly stronger as their members have a direct mandate from the people. A really strong second chamber (elected and with real powers) can create serious problems for a parliamentary system operating on majoritarian principles as the second chamber may have a different composition and a mind of its own.

The Commission appears to have in mind a weak upper house that may be both indirectly elected ("representatives of each Region) and appointed ("civil society"). This, they suggest, might assist in "fostering national involvement in the parliamentary process by the inclusion of various constituencies outside of the structure of the political parties. This would increase participation in decision-making and offer a mechanism to deal with ethnic politics. There would also be provision for the ten regional representatives. This system of government envisages a titular head of state (but the Commission later recommend an executive president). The upper house would have oversight powers over the lower house".

How should the members of civil society be appointed? Would they be representatives of various interests like the churches, the professions, the media, farmers, the trade unions, business? Who would select them? If the parties in the lower house do so that would defeat the objective. The mechanism remains to be worked out, though perhaps the ideal person to make these appointments would in fact be a titular head of state or non-executive president elected by consensus in parliament, as the commission seems itself to have recognised.

Even a weak second chamber can make a real contribution to the conduct of the business of the nation by broadening the scope of debate and allowing a variety of interests in civil society to have their say in the highest forum in the land. It must be hoped that the National Assembly will accept this recommendation and flesh it out imaginatively, giving full scope to civil society to be widely represented. Perhaps the second Chamber should be required to pass all laws for them to be valid but if they fail to do so for say six months the bills could be returned to the lower house and if passed again would become effective.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples